Karen Lund Returns to ‘The Shop Around the Corner’ with ‘She Loves Me’ at Village Theatre

To say that Karen Lund is easy to talk to would be a gross understatement. Lund, who has served as associate artistic director of Taproot Theatre Company since 1993, is making her Village Theatre directorial debut this month with She Loves Me, and the joy she’s bringing to the pre-production process is contagious.

Within minutes, we’d talked about everything from the 1940 movie The Shop Around the Corner—which serves as the musical’s source material—to our shared love of Laura Benanti, who played Amalia when the musical was last on Broadway. “I love her so much,” Lund said, matching my energy for the 2016 Broadway cast album. “Have you seen her on [The Late Show with Stephen] Colbert?”

It’s clear that She Loves Me is a deeply personal story for Lund, one that’s been part of her life for over 20 years—from her first viewing of The Shop Around the Corner to You’ve Got Mail and beyond. And after directing three to four shows a year at Taproot Theatre for the last several seasons, Lund is ready to work away from her artistic home base.

“The thing is, I’ve been raising kids,” Lund said. “And I just haven’t wanted to be away from home that much—especially when they were younger. I’ve really had a lot of artistic fulfillment at Taproot, so I haven’t necessarily gone searching. But now’s the time.”

Karen Lund, director of ‘She Loves Me.’ Courtesy of Taproot Theatre Company

Danielle Mohlman: Why this musical now? What makes it right for 2020 audiences?

Karen Lund: I found myself sitting across from [Village Theatre artistic director] Jerry Dixon, talking about how they chose this season. And what he was really looking for was a season that would bring joy to his audience. He had a list of plays and he would rate them based on how joyful they were—and She Loves Me kept rising to the top. And I have to applaud him. Right now, I think we all need an antidote to some of the toxic stuff that we’re hearing in the news. These characters are very earnest and very simple. No one is trying to be the next best great this or that. Their idea of happiness is a great love. And a steady income and a family. It’s really simple for them.

And, of course, this takes place in a really turbulent time. It’s 1930s Europe where the Depression was as rough there as it was here. And to have a job and a steady income was difficult—so you valued it so much more. I think in a lot of ways the play asks us to value the simple things, like your connections with your family and your connections with your friends, and know that those have worth. And it’s so sweet and so simple. And yet it’s so difficult for us to do that right now.

And we see these characters in this sweet pocket, even though it might not feel like that on the inside, because World War II is going to be worse. And they just don’t know what will happen.

Right. But what we do know is they’re going to have each other. And it’s not just about the romantic relationships. It’s about this family of perfumery workers who go through a difficult time and actually become closer. The support they give each other to be better people is just wonderful.

Randy Scholz and Taryn Darr in 'She Loves Me.'
Randy Scholz and Taryn Darr in ‘She Loves Me.’ Photo by Tracy Martin

It’s way closer than coworkers. There are real, deep friendships there.

Yeah. You know they’re going to last. You know they’re going to support each other during the war. That’s how I see it, at least.

Is there a particular moment or song you’re excited to explore in rehearsals?

I’m really interested in the relationship between Georg and Amalia. They are really intellectual equals, which doesn’t typically happen in stories from that era. They read the same books, they have the same philosophy of life. They have razor-sharp wit. There’s a lot of sparring that happens between them and I’m really excited about creating those moments. I think their battles are going to be outstanding; they’re going to be super fun to watch.

Oh, that’s so exciting! I do want to pivot a bit and talk about arts administration—and your role as associate artistic director of Taproot Theatre. How does arts administration inform the way you direct?

Oh wow. You know what it is? I’m always very mindful of the audience. I have to be, because of my work as an arts administrator. But I also feel like it’s my pleasure to be. At Taproot, we’re in an ongoing conversation with our audience—about the world around us, about truth, about beauty, and about how one person can make an impact on the world. When I was offered the opportunity to direct She Loves Me, one of the first things I said was, “Tell me about your audience. Tell me what they’re looking for.”

And I want to be clear: I’m not talking about pandering to an audience. I’m talking about knowing them and meeting them where they are, so I know how best to challenge them. I have this theory that if you can make somebody laugh, you can actually tell them some pretty hard truths. So, I need to get you comfortable. You feel like you’re in your home, you’re laughing, your heart is open. And then I can tell you a hard truth that might change the way you think or the way you behave.

Eric Ankrim and Mark Emerson in ‘She Loves Me.’ Photo by Tracy Martin

One thing that I love about Taproot is that there’s consciously a dramaturg attached to each play, which feels like a rarity, especially in Seattle. Can you talk a little about the value of dramaturgy in Taproot’s artistry?

I just find dramaturgy to be so important to the work that we’re doing. I don’t care what the play is: dramaturgy can add so much to the depth and breadth of the actors’ work on stage. Any little thing that you learn can spark your creativity in ways that you couldn’t ever imagine. And it’s not just for the actors. Dramaturgy can inform props, the set, costume design. It helps me as a director. I always think, if I wasn’t a director, I might be a dramaturg. Because I love it so much.

She Loves Me runs January 16 to February 23 at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre in Issaquah and from February 28 to March 22 at the Everett Performing Arts Center in Everett. Tickets are available online or by calling 425.257.8600.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

The Hope of Music Lives On in Mona Golabek’s ‘The Pianist of Willesden Lane’

When concert pianist Mona Golabek takes the stage at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley this month, she’ll be stepping into the first role she had as an actor. Golabek has been performing the role of her mother since 2012, premiering The Pianist of Willesden Lane at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

“It’s not only the first time, it’ll be the last time,” Golabek said, adding that it’s her mission to share her mother Lisa Jura’s story. It’s a story that captivated her and spoke to her very core. Jura was not only a Jewish survivor of World War II, she was also a pianist whose music provided hope for many displaced children during the war.

I had the pleasure of speaking with the concert pianist and storyteller about her upcoming run in the Bay Area—and how her classical training has informed the way she thinks about the audience.

Mona Golabek in performing in ‘The Pianist of Willesden Lane.’ Courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents

Danielle Mohlman: When did you first know you wanted to share your mother’s story on stage? How did that come about?

Mona Golabek: About 25 years ago—or maybe it was 30 years ago—I was engaged to play the [Edvard] Grieg Piano Concerto, which is the piece that my mother always dreamed about. And I don’t know what got ahold of me, but I just thought if I could get something out there, I could inspire others with the message of my mother’s story. What happened next was that I set out to write a book called The Children of Willesden Lane. And a lot of people said, “You know, this would make a great performance for the stage.” Because I was going around performing at schools and things. But it wasn’t until my path crossed with Hershey Felder that I had the opportunity to develop it for the stage.

And how long ago was that?

That was about 10 years ago. I saw him perform his Beethoven show and I was just shocked by what a genius he was. So, I asked for some advice and I did a little performance for him. And he was so moved that he decided to take a chance on me.

Do you have a favorite memory of your mother that you’d be willing to share, perhaps one that’s been translated into your performance on stage?

She told me her story while she taught me the piano. And I remember when she pounded out the cadenza of the Grieg Piano Concerto, she told me about how she would go down into the basement when the bombs started.

Oh wow.

And she went to her music to give her the strength to get through.

And while your mother’s story takes place during World War II, it’s still an increasingly relevant story.

I think the reason this story has such resonance today is because of what we’re seeing in the world with the increasingly horrendous refugee crisis. We need stories that emphasize the good in humanity and the choices that are made—and the courage and conviction.

And in a time when we can hardly admire our leaders…I won’t go down a political path. I don’t ever do that. But it’s quite obvious that we are in a crisis of belief in our leaders. And the division that’s happening—this horrendous rhetoric that divides us—there’s no place for that. We have to fight that.

Mona Golabek in performing in ‘The Pianist of Willesden Lane.’ Courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents

I know you said that this is the first and last time you’ll ever portray a character—that you’ll take on the role of storyteller, actor and pianist all in one. What has been the biggest challenge of taking on that role?

Making sure that every night on stage costs you—and that you’re constantly improving, constantly questioning, constantly working to be better on that stage.

And I’m sure that applies to your music as well.

Yes. I had great training in the discipline of being a concert pianist. And I brought that discipline and that training to the world of acting and storytelling.

I think it’s so important to, as a performer, be able to say “This is a different audience tonight. They require just as much from me as last night’s audience.”


What are you most looking forward to about bringing The Pianist of Willesden Lane to TheatreWorks—and Silicon Valley?

Well, I understand that it’s an extraordinary community of amazing, passionate theatre-goers. So I’m excited to bring the story to the community there. And obviously it’s a hotspot of the world where brilliant ideas come forth—and the future, in many ways, of technology. I have a really passionate vision and goal to make Willesden Lane a worldwide message. I want this to be rallying cry—to remind us why we’re here and what our purpose on Earth is. So I have this secret fantasy that one of those guys that runs those tech companies will turn up at the show and be moved.

This is an open invitation, then.

Yes. I want it to be known that if they come see Willesden Lane, it will transform their heart.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane by Hershey Felder, adapted from the book The Children of Willesden Lane by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, runs January 15 to February 16 at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts. Tickets are available online or by calling 650.463.1960.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

Richard Nguyen Sloniker Channels His Angelic Side in ‘The Bishop’s Wife’

Richard Nguyen Sloniker is a charming comedic actor. So appealing that he’s doing his second Cary Grant role at Taproot Theatre Company this year. After successfully portraying the hapless Mortimer, nephew of the murderous aunties in Arsenic and Old Lace, he’s back as the much more urbane and, yes, charming angel Dudley in The Bishop’s Wife this month.

For those who caught this black-and-white 1947 classic on late night television, the harried Bishop (originally played by David Niven) is so busy raising money for a new cathedral that he’s neglecting his family at Christmas. When praying for a miracle, he gets Dudley (Cary Grant), a far too handsome angel who seems more concerned in making sure that the Bishop’s wife has a pleasant holiday break than helping the Bishop. A variety of comedic confusions ensue although all is well by the Christmas Eve service.

This Taproot production directed by Karen Lund uses the radio play version of the popular Christmas movie, adapted by Karen and Mark Lund, and sets the staging at a fictional “KTTC” complete with commercial jingles and sound effects. So Sloniker essentially plays an actor playing an angel. We talked to him about the challenges and joys of this Christmas play as well as switching his career from science to theatre in college.

Richard Nguyen Sloniker as Dudley in Taproot's 'The Bishop's Wife.'
Richard Nguyen Sloniker as Dudley in Taproot’s ‘The Bishop’s Wife.’ Photo by Erik Stuhaug

Rosemary Jones: Every actor has to decide whether or not to watch previous performances of a role. Did you want to watch Cary Grant’s performance as Dudley or did you want to stay away from the movie?  

Richard Nguyen Sloniker: I did watch the movie after the first rehearsal when Director Karen Lund suggested we watch it for the style of the time period. By then I had already made some personal choices for Dudley. The movie was a useful resource, but ultimately the character I created was out of my typical work and not Cary Grant’s performance.

The format of The Bishop’s Wife is essentially a play within a play, as you’re performing the radio version onstage. What are some of the fun aspects of this?

The best, by far, is working with the cast. It’s such a treat to not only act with Chelsea LeValley (Julia, the Bishop’s wife), Calder Jameson Shilling (Henry, the Bishop) and everyone, but to watch everyone’s performances outside of my scenes. I’m blown away at the talent Karen brought together. If you include Music Director Michael Nutting, who composed the score and attended many rehearsals, there are four talented pianists within this company! Amazing.

What are some of the challenges of doing this as a “radio” performance?

This is my first radio play! I quickly realized there are different techniques involved. I’m used to being off-book and looking into the eyes of my scene partner. But with scripts in-hand, you have to balance reading the text, engaging with your scene partner, making sure the audience can see you…all while speaking into a microphone. Talk about walking and chewing gum!  

You’ve performed in many of our regional theatres, Village Theatre, Seattle Children’s Theatre, ACT Theatre, Seattle Rep—what distinguishes a Taproot show for you?

Karen Lund (associate artistic director), Mark Lund (design director) and Scott Nolte (producing artistic director/CEO). They are always welcoming to actors. Even when visiting, I’ve always been offered good conversation and kind words. Both Arsenic and Old Lace and The Bishop’s Wife felt like a homecoming.  

Cast of 'The Bishop's Wife' at Taproot.
Cast of ‘The Bishop’s Wife’ at Taproot. Photo by Erik Stuhaug

How did you go from earning a B.S. in Cellular, Molecular and Developmental Biology to a M.F.A. from University of Washington’s Professional Actor Training Program?

When I was younger I always loved science. I thought I’d grow up to be a doctor. But I have also always performed in theatre. Even while I was working toward my undergraduate degree I was still performing in Seattle fringe theatre. When it came time to decide on graduate schools, I thought that if I became a doctor I wouldn’t be able to perform again. I couldn’t live a life without performance. So I auditioned for one grad school: the University of Washington School of Drama. And luckily, I was accepted! I still love science, and regularly read scientific articles. I don’t think that will leave me anytime soon.

How does having studied both science and the arts make you a better artist?

I approach my characters very rationally. I am a Stanislavski, action-based performer. I need to know physiologically what my character wants, and what tactics they will attempt in order to get it. My science background keeps me asking why characters do what they do; what textually-based clues can we derive from a script?  I’ve never been one to base a performance on “feeling.” I have also never played the color orange.

The Bishop’s Wife is playing now through December 28 at Taproot Theatre Company. Tickets are available online or at 206.781.9707. 

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish MagazineCapitol Hill Times, Encore, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.

Bringing Hanns Eisler’s Music Back to Life

Coming to Bing Concert Hall this December, Hell’s Fury examines the extraordinary life of composer Hanns Eisler. Known for his Marxist politics, Eisler was exiled in turn by three countries—and three of the most powerful ideologies of the twentieth century: Nazi Germany, McCarthyist United States, and communist East Germany.

A highly theatrical recreation of Eisler’s remarkable journey of expatriation and migration, Hell’s Fury resonates in a world of borders and ever-increasing fear of the other. The centerpiece of the production is Eisler’s ironically titled Hollywood Songbook. Written while he was composing Oscar-nominated movie scores in the early 1940s, the song cycle is a lyrical outpouring of wit, anger, and pain.

Stanford Live talked with Hell’s Fury director Tim Albery about bringing Eisler’s life and music to the stage.  

Stanford Live: How did the idea originate to bring Eisler’s music back to life?

Tim Albery: Listening to a recording of The Hollywood Songbook for the first time at the start of this century, I immediately sensed the inherent theatricality of the songs. As I learned more about Eisler’s extraordinary story, the notion of a “day in the life” of Eisler began to take shape.

I was attracted by the fact that Eisler, although a very distinguished composer, is largely unknown. If fictional, his life story would seem utterly incredible; the fact that, with all its unlikely twists and turns, it is true makes it all the more surprising and strangely exhilarating. And his coruscating self-knowledge deflects any potential sentimentality at his cruel fate.       

‘Hell’s Fury’ premiered at Luminato in Toronto over the summer. Photo by Bruce Zinger

What directorial challenges or surprises emerged as you balanced Eisler’s story with the historical context and its contemporary echoes, as well as language and art?

As the narrative began to evolve, the happiest surprise was finding that many of the songs, though all written in Hollywood in the 1940s, applied equally well to Eisler’s later life in communist East Germany. It is something of a liberty to repurpose the songs in this way, but once rehearsals began, their use outside of their original context seemed entirely appropriate.

The challenge throughout was deciding how much biographical information an audience needs and how to include it. I was eager to present an emotional journey told through songs and not a history lesson, so the story of Eisler’s travels and travails between the three ideologies of Nazism, capitalism, and communism is revealed as allusively as possible. The singer and the pianist live out Eisler’s life within the very real world of a mid-twentieth century recording studio. The setting is constantly transformed in surprising and unsettling ways using light, video, and sound to reveal the inner landscape of the songs.

Pianist Serouj Kradjian and baritone Russell Braun. Photo courtesy of Luminato

Discovering which should be the final song of the show was crucial. “Elegy 1943” is a cry of pain at the relentless cycle of history: “From age to age we destroy our neighbors because we fear them.” With this song, Eisler immediately becomes our contemporary, as we witness once again the rise of nationalism and populism, and a determined assault on all the valiant attempts since World War II to devise global laws and institutions that would temper the worst instincts of our species.        

What do baritone Russell Braun and pianist Serouj Kradjian bring to the piece in their portrayals of Eisler’s personal or musical interiority?

Serouj is the brooding introvert of Eisler’s almost bipolar nature, and Russell the ironic, savage, and playful extrovert. The roles are sometimes merged, sometimes almost reversed. Like twins, they each have something of the other. They co-exist while apparently unaware of each other.

A Canadian who was brought up in Germany, Russell is bilingual and bicultural, great assets for discovering Eisler. He is also an entirely instinctive actor, who, in rehearsal, quietly finds his way to the truth of the moment. Serouj listens and breathes with Russell—voice and piano sound as one. And he can turn on a dime; a serious song morphs into a cocktail bar vamp, doodling an improvisation for a movie score crashes into one of Eisler’s manic Piano Sonatas.

‘Hell’s Fury’ is a one-act show running 70 minutes. Photo by Bruce Zinger

Why is it important to bring Eisler’s life and his song cycle—haunted by McCarthyism, displacement, and, even still, beauty—to a contemporary audience, most of whom did not live through the horrors and movements that defined twentieth century?

Displacement is still with us and growing daily—displacement by war, poverty, and increasingly, climate change. The response of many governments is to deliberately breed an atmosphere of fear and contempt for those who can be branded as “not one of us” on grounds of ethnicity, religion, or political views, which is the essence of McCarthyism. Can we really say that fascism or uncontrolled capitalism are merely relics of the twentieth century? And do we not hear contemporary politicians glad, once again, to call themselves socialist, a term that was a death knell for electability only a few years ago? The cycle of history does not stop. Eisler’s life story is mirrored in the lives of countless others today, and it is bracing, salutary, and moving to hear in his songs how relevant his experience remains.

This Dialogue with Director Tim Albery was originally published in Stanford Live’s November/December program. Used with the permission of Stanford Live.

Hell’s Fury, The Hollywood Songbook is Produced by Luminato, Soundstreams & Pinkhouse Productions with support from Opera North, UK. Hell’s Fury will play at Stanford Live’s Bing Concert Hall December 6–7. 

For Kathryn Van Meter, ‘Corduroy’ is a Beautiful Gift for Audiences of All Ages

If you’re an avid theatregoer, chances are you’ve seen Kathryn Van Meter’s work, either on stage or off. She’s an accomplished actor who, last season alone, played Judy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at Village Theatre and originated the role of Liz in Fire Season at Seattle Public Theater.

She’s an incredible choreographer with credits on the stage and the screen. (The choreography in Netflix’s Thirteen Reasons Why—that’s her.) And she’s a prolific director, making her Seattle Children’s Theatre directing debut with Corduroy this winter. We spoke before the start of rehearsals about what it means to bring this childhood favorite to life.

Danielle Mohlman: For so many folks, there’s a childhood association with Corduroy—either they remember it from their own childhood or they’ve shared this book with a child in their life. Can you talk to me about what it means to direct the play Corduroy? Why this play now?

Director of ‘Corduroy’ Kathryn Van Meter. Photo by Kevin Clark

Kathryn Van Meter: Yes, yes. Or as my friend said the other day “Why this bear now?” Which I really love. I’ve worked off and on at the Seattle Children’s Theatre for the last several decades, primarily as a choreographer. And when Courtney Sale [SCT’s artistic director] approached me about doing this project I said, “The bear?!” This book is 50 years old and I deeply remember both Corduroy and A Pocket for Corduroy as a huge part of my childhood. I just loved both books tremendously. And to take something that we have a great love of and put it in front of a multigenerational audience feels like such an unbelievable gift. Especially around the holidays.

The play really expands on what is happening at Lisa and her mom’s house. So the book pretty much deals with Corduroy trying to find his buttons—and the delicious spectacular mess he makes along the way. And the play adaptation also shows side by side what Lisa is doing to convince her mom to let her get Corduroy. She is going through her evening trying to figure out new and exciting ways to get an advance on her allowance. And they’re both just making these spectacular messes along the way as they strive for their goal. They both have these beautiful versions of the hero’s journey. And I particularly get really excited when I see actual mess being made in the theatre. I think messes are really exciting.

And messes that feel like messes. Like, real messes. Not staged messes.

Yeah! And I think that’s really fun. So the piece is two distinct feels. One of them is just pants wettingly funny slapstick—old school clown physical comedy. And then underlying all of that is this beautiful, touching, tender story of how we are awakened when we meet a new friend. And how that awakens a part of us we didn’t know was there. And the ability to have both of those things side by side in a production is really exciting.

Chip Sherman in SCT's 'Corduroy.'
Chip Sherman in SCT’s ‘Corduroy.’ Photo by Angela Sterling

I noticed that this show is being advertised for ages three and up. What excites you about directing with this young audience in mind?

Young audiences are the most honest audience you can perform for. If they love it, they’ll tell you. If they don’t love it, they’ll tell you. And so there’s something about that immediacy that is so exciting to make theatre for. You know that giggle where they laugh so hard they can’t breathe? This show is that kind of fun. And it’s a tricky time that we’re in. And the opportunity to be in communion with our community and create that kind of laughter feels really exciting. And the most wonderful thing about theatre for young audiences, no matter what age you are, when you step inside that theatre you give yourself permission to be a younger version of you. And I think there’s a softening that can happen in an extraordinary way.

And for some audience members, this might be their first live theatre experience.

And that’s a tremendous honor and responsibility. You know, one of my first mentors many, many years ago was giving an opening night speech to the cast and he said, “Every time you perform, you’ve got to remember that somebody in that audience—if not more than one—really sacrificed something to be there.” They chose to do that. And I think the opportunity to ignite the imagination and delight of kids in particular, to give them the opportunity to see things transform in front of them, feels like a beautiful gift to give.

Evangeline OpongParry and Chip Sherman in SCT's 'Corduroy.'
Evangeline OpongParry and Chip Sherman in SCT’s ‘Corduroy.’ Photo by Angela Sterling

And there’s something that really does charge a cast to see and hear really young people in the audience. And part of that is because the reactions are so audible and immediate. It’s different from playing to an audience of adults who are polite or exhausted. For so many reasons, we think that adults are content to be quieter at performances. But the gift of the sounds that the kids make is pretty exciting.

Before I let you go, I have to ask. Do you have a favorite holiday tradition?

I do! So, in the 80s, my parents recorded A Muppet Family Christmas and a Sesame Street Christmas special on our VCR. And a couple of years ago, my sister-in-law converted it to DVD, so now I watch that every Christmas. And the great thing about it is it still has all the commercials.

I was just going to ask what those commercials were like.

There’s a lot of OshKosh B’gosh. There’s a lot of Doublemint gum, with all the twins. And there’s a lot of (sings) “I’ve got that M&M feelin’.” It’s pretty great. That is my holiday tradition. Muppet Family Christmas—with the commercials. 

Corduroy will play at Seattle Children’s Theatre November 21–December 29. Tickets are available online.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American Theatre, The Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

Carrie Compere is Ready to Channel Sister Rosetta Tharpe in ‘Shout Sister Shout!’

When I spoke with actress Carrie Compere mere days before Shout Sister Shout! rehearsals were scheduled to begin at Seattle Rep, her excitement surrounding Sister Rosetta Tharpe and this play was palpable.

“I think the thing that I’m most excited about, is for people to hear about who she was,” Compere said, adding that Tharpe’s contribution to rock and roll wasn’t just musical, it was cultural as well. “That this beautiful black woman from the middle of nowhere influenced so much of what we hear today—I’m just glad her name is going to start to ring out there, you know?”

And as we continued to discuss The Godmother of Rock ‘N’ Roll, that excitement only grew.

Actor Carrie Compere who will play Rosetta Tharpe in ‘Shout Sister Shout!’. Courtesy of Seattle Rep

Danielle Mohlman: I’ll admit that I didn’t learn about Sister Rosetta Tharpe until probably two years ago when the book that Shout Sister Shout! is based on started making the rounds again. I was like “Who’s this? I need to know more!”

Carrie Compere: Yeah and it’s so cool because the first time I ever heard about Rosetta Tharpe—the very first time I ever heard her name mentioned—I happened to be on my first tour that I was in. And we were in Memphis and went to go visit Graceland. And there was a man there with a small group of people—I don’t know if they were his family or if he was giving a tour or what. And he sounded like he was from Great Britain. He was the one who mentioned her! And he was talking about how Elvis had been influenced by Sister Rosetta. And the way he talked about her, he was so excited, and I was just like, “Oh this woman must have been something else.” You know? Because that was the very first time I’d ever heard about her. And to now know who she really was and what she did for music is really amazing.

Yeah. And one thing I find really fascinating, the more I learn about her and the more she comes up in these pop culture conversations, is the fact that her queerness was left out of the conversation for a very long time.

And the play has tones of that, but it’s not overt. And I think that—now, I don’t know—but I think that’s just out of respect for how Rosetta handled it in her own life. She never really talked about it in a public forum. Behind closed doors, when she was in areas where she felt comfortable, that was something she felt free to display. But in the script, they do touch on her relationship with Marie Knight and how they loved each other beyond the sisterly way. But they build it in a way that’s respectful to Rosetta.

Christin Byrdsong and Carrie Compere in 'Shout, Sister, Shout!' at Seattle Rep.
Christin Byrdsong and Carrie Compere in ‘Shout, Sister, Shout!’ at Seattle Rep. Photo by Bronwen Houck

And it’s wonderful to hear you portray it that way—in respect to her and the way she lived her life. Because it was a completely different time and it wasn’t safe to be public about sexuality—not in that way.

Absolutely. And she was a woman who came from not only American culture where it was such a taboo [in the 1930s and 1940s] but also in the church culture.

Do you have a favorite Sister Rosetta Tharpe song? Maybe one you’re excited to dig into in rehearsal?

I don’t know if I have a favorite. I love “Up Above My Head” and the words are so simple. “Up above my head, I hear music in the air.” I think the reason why I love it so much is because I’ve watched her perform it over and over and over again. I’ve been watching videos of her and—I’m going to get emotional right now—but once she’s singing it, you know that she’s talking about something more than just these lyrics. She’s just so rooted and grounded in gospel music—and in the message that she wanted to bring to the world. She’s a woman of faith. And I am as well. And it resonates so deeply with me, you know? And it’s an upbeat song. (Sings) “Up above my head / I hear music in the air / And I really do believe / There’s a Heaven somewhere.”

And you know she believes that. And she’s singing it and she’s playing her guitar and she’s sweating—and she’s giving everything. You know, in the book Shout, Sister, Shout!—and I’m paraphrasing this—one of her friends said there’s a difference between just singing the song and having a relationship with the words you’re singing about. And that’s who Rosetta was. It went so far beyond just the music.

Chaz Rose and Carrie Compere in 'Shout, Sister, Shout!' at Seattle Rep.
Chaz Rose and Carrie Compere in ‘Shout, Sister, Shout!’ at Seattle Rep. Photo by Bronwen Houck

Do you have a favorite moment from the play that you’re really looking forward to digging into in the rehearsal room?

Oh man. Right now I’m learning the electric guitar and acoustic guitar. Because that’s how she established herself in rock and roll, with her picking. I am excited and terrified to really dig into the actual play. And I feel completely supported by our creative team and our music department. But before this experience, I had never played guitar before in my life. So, for me, this was something that on the onset looked insurmountable. So, it’s just been me spending time with the guitar. Sometimes I will literally just strap the guitar on my shoulder and just walk around the house—just really trying to develop a relationship with this instrument.

Because for Rosetta it wasn’t just her instrument. It was an extension of who she was. And sometimes when she wasn’t being confident—when she wasn’t speaking—you could see the way she was holding the guitar, as if she was speaking through the guitar. She was using the guitar to express what she was trying to say, or to support what she was saying. And Rosetta! Oh my god, her speed? Her tempo? It’s otherworldly. It’s amazing what this woman did.

Shout Sister Shout! runs now through December 22 at Seattle Rep. Tickets are available online or by calling 206.443.2222.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American TheatreThe Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

David Fischer brings the Award-Winning Film ‘Shakespeare in Love’ to the Stage

As executive director of Tacoma Arts Live, David J. Fischer helps create shows that draw the community to the organization’s historic venues. A perfect example of his involvement is the current run of Shakespeare in Love, a play which reveals a little bit of the agony and the glory of creating live theatre.

The script by Tom Stoppard, Lee Hall and Marc Norman presents a highly comedic and fictional speculation on how William Shakespeare came to write Romeo and Juliet. Filled with inside jokes, theatre geeks around the world fell in love with the original movie and subsequent stage shows. The oft repeated line “It’s a mystery” refers not only to romance, but to how a jumble of ideas can become a moving work of art on the stage.

We talked to Fischer about the enduring appeal of Shakespeare in Love and live theatre.

Rosemary Jones: Now that the show has opened, where are you hearing the big laughs? 

David Fischer: Every audience is different, but I think some of the biggest laughs come when the “loan shark,” who lends money to produce the play, falls in love with the theatrical process. He gets swept up in the joy of production. That infectious energy is something we all feel, in the cast and backstage. That, I think, is what the audience enjoys so much about Shakespeare in Love.

What surprises you most about the audience reaction?

I love that the audience so eagerly immerses themselves into the world of Elizabethan theatre. There is a great curiosity to have the curtain pulled back and reveal both a different time and a sameness to today.

Tacoma Arts Live Executive Director David Fischer. Courtesy of Tacoma Arts Live

The movie leaps from location to location as Will runs through London. When you bring this script back to the stage, what are some of the challenges in keeping the action moving and the audience clear on the location?

Many of the film’s settings are duplicated in the stage script, and this is a challenge. We don’t have the luxury of editing. So, this script needs to flow cinematically from place to place. We achieve this through a minimalist approach to stage furniture, and use actors, costumes, music and lighting to move us from place to place. The cast skillfully meets the choreographic demands and keeps the action flowing from moment to moment.

For Shakespeare buffs, there’s a lot of hidden gems in this story as Will hears others say lines that he will write into his plays. What’s your favorite Shakespeare trivia moment in the show?

You’re right, there are a great deal of hidden quotes from a variety of Shakespearean classics, from Romeo and Juliet to Hamlet. My favorite comes from “the Scottish play”—which superstition demands we not speak, but I can type—Macbeth! So, the contemporary playwright Stoppard has a dog running loose onstage, because “a bit with a dog” always pleases the Queen. However, the dog is taking over the action to a point where the producer barges on stage to grab the dog, shouting “Out, damn spot!” 

The center of this play is a romance of the minds as much as the bodies. Why does this particular play, and Will and Viola’s romance, work so well on stage?

The love in this play is first and foremost a love for words, for poetry, for the ideals of love. I think the universality of the play comes from out human yearning for love and our expression of that desire, even when—or especially when—it is unrequited.

Shakespeare in Love will have four more performances this weekend, November 1–3, at Tacoma Arts Live’s Theater on the Square. Tickets are available online.

Rosemary Jones has written about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest for the Cornish MagazineCapitol Hill Times, Encore, Examiner.com and others. Additional work can be seen at rosemaryjones.com.

Yang Zhen Finds Inspiration in Friends and Travel in ‘Minorities’

When Yang Zhen and I spoke on the phone in early October, Yang was quite literally burning the midnight oil. The choreographer was at home in Beijing, winding down after a late-night rehearsal for his latest evening-length piece, Minorities.

While Yang’s day was coming to an end, mine was just beginning. As we navigated time zones and language barriers, I asked Yang my most burning question: The marketing materials that Stanford Live put out call him a “boy wonder.” I wanted to know what that phrase meant to him.

“I don’t know why they’re calling me this,” he laughed. “Maybe I’m a genius for creation.” Despite his humble approach to his work, Yang is gearing up for an exciting step in Minorities’ journey: a North American tour spanning Toronto, Canada and Stanford, California. Over the course of our conversation, Yang spoke about why he, as part of the ethnic majority in China, felt so compelled to create a piece for and about minority identity.

Danielle Mohlman: So much of Minorities is about identity. What was your initial inspiration for the piece?

Yang Zhen: My university was the center of diversity in Beijing. There are a lot of different ethnic minorities in China―and many come to Minzu University to study. I had four years at that university and made a lot of friends who educated me on the tradition of minority dance. Because at my university, we learned the “official” dances of all these minority cultures and my friends would say, “Oh no. It’s very different from what you learned.”

When they came to Beijing, my friends had to change their lives and the way they behave. It’s very difficult and very sensitive. There are different ideas and different ways of talking―and it brought some contrast to my world.

From different cultural perspectives in China?

Yes. And then I went to Xinjiang, a province in western China, just to tour it. And I found that that city is not very different from my own home in Beijing. And then I went to Mongolia, I went to the Hunan Province. But my inspiration really started with those four years in university―from my friends. It made me want to talk about these themes.

Production Photo from ‘Minorities.’ Courtesy of artist

This performance at Stanford is the first time Minorities has been seen in the United States. What does it mean to be sharing your work―and this work in particular―with an American audience?

The identity I speak from―the Chinese society―has issues and problems that are very international. I think everywhere has identity problems. And I think America has their own identity problem. People from all over come to America. I’ve been to New York and it’s an amazing city. There’s freedom in the society. But it’s a very sensitive issue. I really like to take the subway to go everywhere. It’s very personal. I like to watch how people behave, and the details that they show in a public place.

With Minorities, I’m able to share the Chinese minorities with an American audience. Their lives, their hopes, their disappointments. The way they occupy this new generation. I think this is very, very universal.

The majority of your audience in California will be English-speaking. How does dance and your work transcend language?

Well first, we have body language.

Of course.

Minorities will of course have traditional dance from Chinese Koreans, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang Province and Macao. And you’ll see how the dance technique of these traditional dances interacts with the technique of acting and theatre. And the music is also very important. We have one section where the music is from the 1960s. And that dance style is very straight. Everyone has these set smiles―like robots. The dancing from that time was the national machine. Everyone had to be the same. It was totalitarian; that was the aesthetic. And then we go back to the traditional and soft dance. It’s like we are back in our university learning modern dance. Every look, ever contour is very, very soft.

Production Photo from ‘Minorities.’ Courtesy of artist

To go from that stiff totalitarian style to that soft flowing look―I bet that’s really beautiful to see.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Everything has to be beautiful. And after 2008, after China hosted the Olympics, everyone really started to learn English. Everybody wanted to be international. So there’s this dance in Minorities that’s very much like a playground dance.

Oh fun!

It’s very fun. And you can see the whole identity of China covering the country.

Before I let you go, what are you most looking forward to about coming to California?

Oh, everyone in my group is so excited for this work to be in North America. We’re excited about the audience. We’re curious about how they think about China. The piece is more asking than answering, you know what I mean?

It comes with questions.

Yeah, yeah. Because we’re never really confused about who we are. But some days you wake up and you ask “Who am I?”

Minorities runs November 1 to 3 at Stanford Live. Tickets are available online or by calling 650.724.2464.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American TheatreThe Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

Kate Attwell Blends Women’s Athletics and Colonization in Her New Play, ‘Testmatch’

When I spoke with Testmatch playwright Kate Attwell on her second day of rehearsal at the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) in San Francisco, she was in a fight with jet lag. “I haven’t had breakfast yet, but I’ve had at least three cups of coffee,” Attwell shared. “I’ve literally been up since four thinking ‘When am I allowed to really be in the world?’”

The answer, as far as I’m concerned, is right now. Attwell, who identifies as “technically Irish,” spent most of her childhood in South Africa, Texas and England. After getting an MFA in Dramaturgy from Yale, Attwell moved to London, splitting her time between there and New York. So, the jet lag is understandable. As she acclimated to the West Coast, Attwell and I talked about sports, theatre, and why she’s making space for marginalized voices in her work.

Playwright Kate Attwell. Courtesy of A.C.T.

Danielle Mohlman: There’s something really powerful about using sports as a conduit onstage, especially for female-identifying playwrights. Can you talk to me about your relationship to cricket and why you chose this sport as you navigate themes of race, colonialism and gender?

Kate Attwell: I was watching some women’s cricket on television a couple years ago and it wasn’t a sport that I’d thought of in a long time. I hadn’t really thought about cricket since I was a kid. And I was watching a T20 [Twenty20] version of the sport, which is like a faster version of the sport. It’s super commercial and much more exciting than the traditional way that it’s played. And it just felt exciting to me to see women having that level of visibility in the sport and the way that it really is a calculated game. It’s also a dangerous game. The ball is intensely hard and comes at you really fast. The batswomen are wearing these war gear uniforms. We see that kind of attire in ice hockey or men playing American football. But that war gear on female bodies just felt really exciting to me. And now, this sport is essentially being played by what is, and was, this colonizing nation—and all of the nations that it historically colonized.

Because it’s huge in India.

It’s huge in India. Yeah yeah yeah. It’s an amazing sport there. The excitement around it is something that’s really wonderful to witness.

One thing that I noticed in the production credits is that A.C.T. has hired Radhika Rao as a cultural consultant—and I think that’s incredible to see, in the same way that I’m relieved to see an intimacy consultant involved with a play that has a lot of sexual content. Can you talk about the decision to bring her on board?

Yeah. Radhika is fantastic. She’s been with us since we did a workshop back at the beginning of the year. It’s been crucial to me in all the phases of development to have someone who’s holding that space in a completely authentic way. This is a very important story to be telling because I’m wanting to harshly interrogate—and critique—the colonial impulse, which plays out in so many different ways. It’s not just about India. It’s about that force of white supremacy and the way that it existed historically. It’s about looking at the historical narrative in order to look at where we are today. And having Radhika in the room has been crucial for the actors as well.

Cast and crew in rehearsal for 'Testmatch.'
Cast and crew in rehearsal for ‘Testmatch.’ Photo by Beryl Baker

Because oftentimes—you know, you’re talking about an intimacy consultant. That’s a very similar kind of thing, where historically we can over depend on actors having to bring their own understandings, their own dramaturgy, their own culture. And that we only rely on that. And that’s great if they want to share that. And I think the reason I love theatre is because I love working with actors. And letting them bring themselves to the role and letting them have an impact on it. That’s crucial. But also having somebody who’s not embodying it—to be able to authenticate and hold that space for them—feels super crucial too. It’s a necessity of the work.

You said you split your time between London and New York. What’s one thing American theatre can learn from England?

This may be a boring answer, but ticket prices. In London, I can always figure out how to see a show for £15. And that feels very manageable in a way that $50 or $70 is just ludicrous. And I think that allows theatre to be a living, breathing part of society and culture in a very different way. And that allows for experimentation and different ways to take risks.

Coming back to Testmatch: Do you have a favorite moment from rehearsal so far? Or something you’re looking forward to in the coming weeks?

Yeah, yesterday was my first day.

Director Pam MacKinnon and cast member Avanthika Srinivasan in rehearsal for 'Testmatch.'
Director Pam MacKinnon and cast member Avanthika Srinivasan in rehearsal for ‘Testmatch.’ Photo by Beryl Baker

And you’re still adjusting to the time zone.

Yeah, I’m just like “Where am I? Who am I? Who wrote this play?” But I’m really looking forward to everyone being able to get on their feet. I’m so impressed with Pam MacKinnon. She’s amazing so far. I love watching her. I feel completely comfortable as a writer.

There’s a trust there.

Yeah, exactly! And this is a very stylistic play. It’s a little bit Greek, it’s a little bit farce, it’s a little bit realism, it’s a little bit metatheatrical. It’s all of these different things. And now, being able to actually build those other things that the play is doing, is really exciting.

CORRECTION: October 31, 2019
A previous version of the article misstated that Kate Attwell holds a MFA in playwriting. She holds a MFA in dramaturgy.

Testmatch runs October 24 to December 8 at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at 415.749.2228.

Danielle Mohlman is a Seattle-based playwright and arts journalist. She’s a frequent contributor to Encore, where she’s written about everything from the intersection of sports and theatre to the landscape of sensory-friendly performances. Danielle’s work can also be found in American TheatreThe Dramatist and on the Quirk Books blog.

Theatre22 is Revolutionizing Theatre and Inviting You to Join

Often in contemporary theatre, plays demonstrate the worst of humanity—in 2019 a tone of nihilism permeates society and by extension, the art that acts as a mirror.

However, Theatre22 is doing something a little different. They are opening their fifth season with a Festival of Revolution, which will include two plays—The Revolutionist and White—performed in rotation. With two these shows and with their larger mission, Theatre22 strives to celebrate hope and healing to the community through theatre.

We talk with the Founder and Producing Artistic Director Corey McDaniel about Theatre22’s vision and what to expect from their upcoming Festival.

Founder and Producing Artistic Director of Theatre22 Corey McDaniel. Photo Courtesy of Theatre22

Ciara Caya: Theatre22 is about to begin its fifth season, which makes it a relatively new theatre company. Did you see something that was missing in Seattle’s existing theatre offerings that you wanted to provide? 

Corey McDaniel: We in Seattle are blessed with an incredibly vibrant theatre scene and so many extremely talented theatre artists. Theatre22 came into being to create innovative ways to bring together many of these exceptional and underutilized artists to work on projects that made us excited and hopeful; that gave us energy to move forward; and that helped us channel our creative energies into making a positive impact on the world around us.

Rather than choosing scripts that wallow in the darkness around us, we want to explore ways to embrace the broken-ness of our humanity, but, ultimately, to move toward the light. As we identify in our mission statement, Theatre22 is committed to producing exceptional live theatre that engages a diverse community of artists and audiences, inspires new ways of interpreting the world around us, and celebrates hope and healing.

In addition to choosing plays that are constructive, Theatre22 focuses on works that discuss diversity and equity. What else, besides play selection, does Theatre22 do to ensure the productions are accessible for a diverse audience?

First and foremost, Theatre22 hopes to be deeply engaged with our community. Of course there is always more to do and there is never enough time or person-power! But we strive to listen and learn from those around us, to challenge ourselves and others to come to new understandings, and to continue to grow with our artists and our audience. We also strive to reach out to new people with every show and to personally connect with each person who comes through the door to let them know how important they are to our process. For us, it is all about connection. That is the joy of doing theatre! What could be more exciting and satisfying? 

Cast of 'White.' Shermona Mitchell, Jennifer Ewing, Tyler Rogers,and Christian Quinto.
Cast of ‘White.’ Shermona Mitchell, Jennifer Ewing, Tyler Rogers,and Christian Quinto. Photo by John Curry Photography

Speaking of the joy of theatre, let’s talk a little about Theatre22’s upcoming productions. Even though they take place over 200 years apart and in two different countries, The Revolutionists and White both examine the oppression of women and people of color. Why do you find it beneficial to pair these two plays together in a festival? What do you hope the audience gains from watching these plays in sequence?

A primary part of our vision is to do thought-provoking and belief-challenging works. Both of the plays in our festival fit this vision, in different ways. Both explore voices that have been undervalued and marginalized. Both ask questions about how we can make changes in our world to face the harsh realities of covert and overt violence. Both explore questions of art and activism, of feminism and intersectionality, of who gets to tell the story, and what does redemption look like. We believe that people will leave the theatre with good questions, and that the questions will inform each other and will ultimately help us be better witnesses to the people in the world who most need to be heard.

In addition to the two productions which will be performed during the Festival of Revolution, there will also be community events. Can you tell us a little more about these?

Because we are so excited about the ways audiences will respond to our productions, we are planning to bring artists and audiences together to engage in several post-play discussions during the run of our shows. We’re also excited to provide several opportunities to see both shows in one day and will have staff around to engage with audiences in between shows. In addition, we have reached out to a number of new communities, providing tickets and post-play gatherings to encourage dialogue both in the theatre and beyond. We’re always exploring new ways to connect and would love to hear from audiences both in person and in online conversation.

To join Theatre22 in the conversation, attend the Festival of Revolution. The Revolutionists and White will be running in rotation October 18–November 9 at 12th Avenue Arts. Single tickets and specially priced festival package tickets are available online.